An unusual cold weather struck Southern Texas in the middle of February, putting thousands of sea turtles near South Padre Island at risk. The community rallied to go for the rescue, despite them too being affected by the freezing cold, which caused power cuts and frozen pipes.

The operation began at sea, where small boats and commercial vessels collected hundreds of cold-stunned turtles that had floated to the surface. A few days later, volunteers joined forces to help out, as the animals started to wash up on beaches.

Wendy Knight, executive director of Sea Turtle, Inc. — a nonprofit education, rehabilitation, and conservation organisation on the island —, explained that those turtles don’t usually rest on beaches for fun. The event hence showed a clear sign of distress.

Belonging to the reptile family, sea turtles are cold-blooded and don’t rely on fur or feathers to keep the right body temperature; instead, they move to warmer or colder locations, in order to regulate it with the aid of the ambience.

When temperatures suddenly drop as they did in Texas during that week, sea turtles go through a literally stunning experience: their heart-rate slows down, followed by their body, reaching a state of paralysis that makes it very difficult for them to eat or move. Failure to warm up can result in pneumonia or even death if they stay in the cold weather for too long.

Volunteers managed to rescue more than 5,000 sea turtles, taking them to the South Padre Island convention centre, where they could stay until the weather had improved. Although power cuts affected the facility for days, keeping the turtles indoors on a tarp was still a better option than leaving them in the water. Knight explained that it’s crucial to warm up the cold-stunned animals gradually.

The whole rescue operation wouldn’t have been possible without the swift and inspiring response of the South Padre community. The residents went down to the beach and loaded up dozens of the sea animals in their cars. It took the effort of ten men to lift up one of the turtles, which was at least 150 years old and weighed around 400 pounds (180 kg).

On one of the days — as described by Gina McLellan, a longtime volunteer with Sea Turtle, Inc. — the line of cars bearing turtles reached almost 400 meters outside the convention centre. “That line never stopped until six in the evening. Whether [cars] had one turtle or 200, they just waited,” she said.

Wendy Knight also wanted to express her awe at the support received from the residents. “We have people who have not had power or water in their own homes in three to four days working 15 to 18 hours a day to save turtles,” she said. “The gas stations are now out of gas, and the grocery stores are out of water, and people are still showing up. That says something about the caliber of a community.”

Companies based near South Padre Island came in to help too. It was the case of SpaceX, whose engineers arrived from the nearby site in Boca Chica with a huge generator, bringing back power to the convention centre.

A few days later, after scientists had been carefully monitoring water temperatures, the releasing operation could begin. Volunteers at Sea Turtles, Inc. took more than 2,200 of the sea turtles off-shore in the open ocean of the Gulf of Mexico.

“We still have lots of work to do,” the group wrote on Facebook, where they posted a video of the turtles going back in the water with the help of slides, “but we are rejuvenated with passion and having seen our first released turtles swim away.”